A tall man in plain dark clothes entered SALAM Islamic Center one Friday earlier this month and took his place on the ground to pray with about 700 other congregants.
Mohamed Abdul-Azeez listened to the visiting imam’s sermon and joined the cycle of prayer, standing to recite the Quran and then kneeling and prostrating twice. He looked both pensive and sad, occasionally stroking his beard and rubbing his forehead.
Azeez later said he knew that many of his fellow worshippers were wondering why he wasn’t in his usual spot on the green and gold stage leading the call to prayer at the Friday Jummah, the Muslim equivalent of the Jewish Sabbath or Christian Sunday services.
Azeez, 38, is a charismatic cleric who led SALAM to national prominence over the past 10 years. He surprised the local Muslim community when he tendered his resignation as imam of the North Highlands mosque in September, then announced it on Facebook in October. Azeez had proposed to step down effective March 15, 2015, when the new mosque board elections are scheduled. But the current board, after reviewing the bylaws, decided that wasn’t soon enough. Azeez left his post on Nov. 16.
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His departure comes after a majority of the nine-member board rebuffed his expansion plan, which included establishing satellite mosques throughout the region, hiring an IT manager to televise his sermons and adding an assistant imam to handle many of the needs of the congregation. The majority of the board, led by co-founder and Executive Director Metwalli Amer, said the congregation’s first priority should be to pay off debt. Azeez also sought a seat on the board.
Some experts said the rift at SALAM reflects a fundamental change in American Islam. Imams, once spiritual advisers from Muslim countries who often spoke little or no English, have evolved into English-speaking youth and marriage counselors, fundraisers, public figures and ambassadors of Islam beyond their mosque walls, said Rashid Ahmed, founder of the Sacramento branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Mosque boards didn’t exist a century ago, but as mosques grew, a structure was needed to raise and administer funds. Many boards haven’t developed a model to deal with the growing influence of their imams in the Internet age, Ahmed said.
“As a board, how do you handle an imam that both works for you and is above you?” Ahmed said.
He said similar conflicts led to the recent resignation of the imam at the Muslim Community Association of Santa Clara, as well as the departure of imams in Fremont, Orange County and Boston.
Azeez, who notes that half of SALAM’s congregation is under 30, characterized his clash with the board as a generational issue. “In essence, what’s happened is a struggle between two generations in our community, the young and the old, the progressive and conservative, people who would like to maintain the status quo and those who would like to break through the roof,” he said in a recent interview.
“It’s an understandable struggle; it’s growing pains,” he added. “We’re going to emerge from this better and stronger.”
Azeez also posted an online essay in which he argued that mosques in the United States need to do more to connect with young people who could come under the influence of radical Islamic groups. “Mosques are failing to offer needed programs and services,” he wrote.
Amer, who has faced a chorus of questions and objections over Azeez’s departure, responded with an email to SALAM’s membership, which he titled “The other side of the story.”
“Simply stated, this crisis is a struggle for power,” Amer wrote. “Imam Azeez wants to take control of SALAM, administratively and religiously. ... He has used his popularity and his followers in this crisis to put pressure on the board to yield to his demands and violate the bylaws ... Since he gained popularity, he has not been a team player with the management team.”
When Azeez came to SALAM in 2005, he was heralded as a “new-wave imam” who spoke both Arabic and English and could connect with Muslims across generations. The congregation has since grown from 40 members who met in a double-wide trailer to one of the best-known, most-progressive mosques in the country.
In 2011, SALAM, which stands for the Sacramento Area League of Associated Muslims, opened a $5.5 million, 21,000-square-foot mosque that includes a gift shop, library and school. Upward of 700 people with origins in 25 nations attend Friday prayers.
“The congregation grew because (Azeez) attracted people far and wide and connects with every age group from 9 to 90,” said Farrukh Saeed, board chairman from March 2009 to March 2014 and now an ex officio board member.
Azeez, who holds a master’s degree in sociology and Islamic history from the University of Chicago, criticized forced arranged marriages, denounced Muslim extremists, said Muslim nations need to become democracies and combined jokes with an extensive knowledge of the Quran he learned by heart as a boy in Egypt. He helped stage a Muslim concert at Crest Theatre last year, drawing fire from the more conservative imams of Sacramento’s two biggest mosques, one of whom said music leads to alcohol, which leads to adultery.
SALAM has won national recognition for its efforts to build bridges and promote mutual understanding. In 2009, Azeez became one of the nation’s first imams to win the FBI Director’s Community Leadership Award “for preventing violence, creating understanding, bringing people together,” said Drew Parenti, the Sacramento FBI’s special agent in charge. SALAM won the same award in 2012.
Azeez has been invited to speak at Islamic centers from Seattle to Boston, and has conducted workshops on diversity and multiculturalism for the FBI, the Sacramento district attorney and other law enforcement agencies.
As Azeez’s popularity and reach grew, he clashed with Amer and other board members. Azeez’s expansionist vision for the mosque included the creation of satellites in Natomas, Roseville, Vacaville and Fairfield. He pioneered his own Web TV show on Muslim issues, “The Heart of the Matter,” and asked the board to hire an IT manager to broadcast his sermons throughout the region.
Azeez also sought a seat on the board, a practice common in Christian denominations but extremely rare at the nation’s 2,300 mosques. He wanted the board to hire an assistant imam to focus on funerals, hospitals, end-of-life services, prison ministries and interfaith work.
“A massive wave of millennials, baby boomers and young professionals are moving into the area with their families, and that’s going to put a strain on local mosques,” he said in an interview. “I started 10 years ago as one guy when we had 50 people, and now we had our annual Eid service with 6,000 people and I’m still one guy – I can’t do it all.”
The board’s leadership countered that SALAM’s first priority is to pay off the $2.6 million loan needed to build the new mosque. Under Islamic law, loans with interest are considered a last resort, but the recession in 2008-09 hurt some big donors who couldn’t follow through on their pledges. SALAM had no choice but to take out a bank loan or abandon the project, Saeed said.
The unforeseen financial burden ate up all available funds. “We really didn’t have the money to hire a residential imam who could handle our internal needs and the five daily prayers so Imam Azeez could serve at a bigger level, explaining what Islam is all about for the betterment of the larger society,” Saeed said. “His horizons are much bigger now, and in his growth spurt, being imam at SALAM is no longer the job of a single imam who can attend both internal and external needs.”
Inspiring young people
Amer, SALAM’s co-founder and executive director, helped recruit Azeez years ago. He has faced a firestorm of criticism from Azeez’s backers since the imam’s departure. On Nov. 23, several hundred people attended a Night of Gratitude for Azeez at Sunrise Event Center in Rancho Cordova, and more than 500 signed a petition calling for his reinstatement.
Irfan Haq, a former board member who helped bring Azeez to SALAM, called the board’s acceptance of Azeez’s resignation “a tragedy of immense proportions” in a letter to the mosque membership.
“Imam Azeez has given so much to all of us it is immeasurable, he’s educated the youth, both men and women, converts and Muslims” from across the nation, said Haq, president of the Council of Sacramento Valley Islamic Organizations, representing 16 mosques. “I am not aware of any other imam playing such a pivotal role in reawakening the community to realize its potential.”
Haq noted that crowds of 4,000 or more have turned out for Azeez’s sermons on Islam’s holiest holidays.
Haq suggested that it will be much harder for SALAM to repay the construction loan without Azeez to help raise money. He urged the board to hire an assistant imam who can help with the daily prayers and counsel youths, allowing Azeez to return and to supplement his income – about $88,000 a year – with speaking engagements, since he does not get a pension as SALAM’s imam.
Some young people attending the Dec. 12 Jummah said Azeez helped kindle their faith.
“I was lost when I was a football player at Inderkum High School,” said Zaeem Ali, 21, who now teaches Sunday school. “I didn’t care about school, I didn’t even know how to pray. Half the other imams who preach in Arabic don’t make any sense to us. It was Azeez’s ability to reach into our soul and understand what we were going through that turned us around.”
Nasser Roshan, 24, said he hated Islam growing up: “I thought it was violent, crazy and went to synagogues, churches looking for religion. I was leaning toward atheism. Then I came here and Azeez introduced himself and didn’t say he was imam.” Roshan asked Azeez about Islam, violence and women’s rights. “We talked for hours and I felt for the first time, someone was answering my questions.”
At this point, Azeez’s future with SALAM is unclear. He has been given the title of imam emeritus without any salary, and says he doesn’t plan to leave the area despite receiving numerous job offers.
Azeez is married and has three children who attend SALAM’s Islamic school, where he remains chairman of the board. He said he’s been invited to Seattle, Santa Clara, Saratoga and Phoenix as a guest imam.
Some mosque leaders implied that Azeez could be brought back, if the two sides can settle their differences.
Asked about Azeez, Amer deferred to SALAM’s current board chairman, Dr. Anne Kjemtrup, who said she hopes the former imam can be brought back somehow. “Our major concerns are getting our community needs met, and then balancing it with his ideas,” she said. “I really do hope we come out the other end with a model organization that others can look to.”
And Azeez? “I have not shut the door,” he said.
Call The Bee’s Stephen Magagnini, (916) 321-1072. Bee researcher Pete Basofin contributed.